In the weeks before my son drove off with three friends on a cross-country journey from Connecticut to California, I pleaded with him to reconsider his destination, Los Angeles, where Covid was spiking, as well as his plan to take the colder, snowier, northern route through Chicago, the Great Plains, and the Rockies. When he refused to reconsider either, I called AAA, scoured online travel forums, and asked a friend from Nebraska for advice about driving in wintry weather conditions (buy snow tires).
My friend asked why I didn’t just refuse to let him go. I didn’t think I could—Michael was almost 22, he paid for the trip with his own money, and his classes were virtual. I knew that once he graduated from college, he’d be a full-on, no-strings-attached adult.
I feared that it was time for me to let go after years of holding on, perhaps a bit too tight.
When Michael was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome at age 11, I became an expert on his condition, I found him treatments and people who could help, I made sure he got a good education, and helped him navigate the social landmines of middle and high school. I was his champion and protector, for years.
Now, in Michael’s final semester of college, this trip was my last hurrah, possibly the last time I would have a say. He had grown into the young man I dreamed he would become. But I was still locked in the same protective pattern—the helicopter mom who refused to land.
I had spent more than two decades working toward a singular goal, to prepare my son to become independent; I had engineered his life in hopes that this day would come. Yet rather than feeling successful or happy, I had become angst-ridden and sullen.
This road trip, in the middle of a global pandemic, brought out my worst fears—and my worst tendencies.
My behavior seemed a bit hypocritical given that I had taken my share of road trips in college. The difference is that I lied to my parents. At least he was telling me! Once, I drove to Florida with my roommates for spring break and told mom and dad that we were flying, and, I snuck away on a romantic weekend to Martha’s Vineyard with my then boyfriend (now husband), which was a no-no in my parents’ Catholic household.
I never told my son any of this. Instead, we argued for weeks leading up to the trip. I accused him of being selfish and irresponsible, reckless even, because of Covid. I told him that he was too young and immature to realize that the risk of driving through snowy, icy weather rendered the route unsafe. “You are incapable of making a sound decision because your frontal lobe is still not fully formed!” I explained in my mother-knows-best voice.
Michael assured me that he had painstakingly planned the route with his friends, that they would take turns driving, and that they would wear masks. I knew he had been responsible at college, and that he would continue doing so, just in other locales, which is more than a lot of 21-year-olds have done.
Yet we remained angry with each other, which is rare, and we talked about it less once I acknowledged that the road trip was happening with or without my blessings.
So, on a frigid January morning, my son boarded Bertha, the silver Toyota Highlander that both of my kids claimed as their own during their last year of high school.
His texts from the road were upbeat.
“In Ann Arbor! Only a little snow.”
“BBQ in Des Moines,” along with a photo of ribs.
“Made it to Denver—16 hours later!”
As if I didn’t know his whereabouts (he allowed me to track him while he was traveling).
My responses were terse: “Thanks for the update.”
I was relieved that he had made it to the next destination, but I was still angry and worried.
A couple of days later, a week into the journey, he texted: “Today we went hiking in Arches and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”
He also wrote: “Thanks for always looking out for me.”
That’s when my tone changed. After preaching for weeks, I finally felt heard.
Acknowledging my work as a mother made something shift inside of me. With each mile, the further he drove, the more I was able to move on, too. Now it was my turn to let go.
If I didn’t, I worried that the bond we forged a decade ago when he was diagnosed with Tourette’s would snap after it had withstood high school and most of college. That I would push him away if I didn’t start to trust him.
“I hope you understand what a great adventure this is,” I texted. “I know I was really hard on you, and I didn’t treat you like the adult you are. I always have your safety in mind. I think the world of you.”
“I appreciate it.”
“We can’t wait to see more pictures. Where are you headed next?” I asked. I began to make jokes, referring to him as Malibu Mike.
On his second day in L.A., Michael sent me a picture of him and his friends in front of the Hollywood sign. I was happy for him—and a tiny bit jealous that I was stuck at home while he had the opportunity to see a magical stretch of the country with some of his best friends. It was not lost on me that he was in Los Angeles, the same city where I moved after I graduated college. I knew what it felt like to be captivated by California.
The next day was the tenth anniversary of the day Michael started ticcing. The date was insignificant—to him. But I had spent a decade worried that he would be bullied, that his self-esteem would never bounce back, that he would never make friends or become independent. I finally understood that he was not the same fragile boy who needed my protection.
A few days before Michael headed home (on the southern route), he called and said, “You’re not going to like this…”
I knew what was coming. My son was planning to move to Los Angeles come summer.
I was happy for him. I always knew that separating would be hard. For me. But he had been preparing to take flight for years.
Besides, at 22 and 20, my children are no longer kids. I want to have a strong relationship with them into adulthood and hope that both of my children will look back on my helpful hints and worry-wart tendencies and see it as love. It was the only way I knew how to parent.
Last month, my son left for LA, for good this time. When I dropped him off at the airport, I gave him a hug, and cupped his face into my hands as I held back tears. He looked down at me and said, “Mom, you’re gonna be OK.”
This post is republished on Medium.